Chapter 8







T his chapter introduces the fundamental elements of a qualitative approach to research, to help you understand and become proficient in the qualitative methods.   This chapter covers the following topics:

• Introduction to Qualitative Research

• Comparing Qualitative and Quantitative Research

• Sampling in Qualitative Research

• Recruitment in Qualitative Research

• Ethical Guidelines in Qualitative Research

• Suggested Readings


Introduction to Qualitative Research


What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a type of scientific research. In general terms, scientific research consists of an investigation that:

1.      seeks answers to a question

2.      systematically uses a predefined set of procedures to answer the question

3.      collects evidence

4.      produces findings that were not determined in advance

5.      produces findings that are applicable beyond the immediate boundaries of the study


       Qualitative research shares these characteristics. Additionally, it seeks to understand a given research problem or topic from the perspectives of the local population it involves. Qualitative research is especially effective in obtaining culturally specific information about the values, opinions, behaviors, and social contexts of particular populations.


What can we learn from qualitative research?

The strength of qualitative research is its ability to provide complex textual descriptions of how people experience a given research issue. It provides information about the “human” side of an issue – that is, the often contradictory behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships of individuals. Qualitative methods are also effective in identifying intangible factors, such as social norms, socioeconomic status, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion, whose role in the research issue may not be readily apparent. When used along with quantitative methods, qualitative research can help us to interpret and better understand the complex reality of a given situation and the implications of quantitative data. Although findings from qualitative data can often be extended to people with characteristics similar to those in the study population, gaining a rich and complex understanding of a specific social context or phenomenon typically takes precedence over eliciting data that can be generalized to other geographical areas or populations. In this sense, qualitative research differs slightly from scientific research in general.


Qualitative researchers are not concerned simply with describing the way things are, they also wish to provide insights into what people believe and feel about the way things are and how they got to be the way they are.  In order to achieve the detailed understanding they seek, qualitative researchers must undertake in-depth, in-context research  that allows the opportunity to uncover  more subtle, less overt understandings. Thus, qualitative researchers typically maintain a lengthy physical presence in the chosen setting. In these settings they can assume  a range of involvement—form an observer, to an interviewer, to a participant observer who literally becomes a participants in the setting. These three levels of involvement lead to different levels of understanding. Being  actively present in the setting of the study provides insights not available to “outsiders” who are peripherally present. It is recommended  that novice qualitative researchers should become active participants in the setting.

      Qualitative researchers focus on the characteristics on a single person or phenomenon (case study); a group’s cultural patterns and perspectives (ethnography); the link between participants’ perspectives gained by interactions (symbolic interaction); and how phenomena are experienced by participants (phenomenology)). Taken together, a common generic name for these qualitative approaches is interpretive research .     


      Common qualitative research approaches

Approach                     Key Question

Case study                   What are the characteristics of this particular entity, phenomenon, or person?

Ethnography                What are the cultural patterns and perspectives of this group in its natural setting?

Ethology                      How do origins, characteristics, and culture of different societies compare to one another?

Ethnomethodology        How do people make sense of their everyday activities in order to behave in socially accepted ways?

Grounded theory          is an inductively derived theory about a phenomenon grounded in the data in a particular setting?

Phenomenology           What is the experience of an activity or concept from these particular participants’ perspective?

Symbolic interaction      How do people construct meanings and shared perspectives by interacting with others?                  






      For most part, the methods used to conduct qualitative research in these areas are similar. They all involve (1) intensive participation in a field setting, (2) collecting detailed data from field activities, and (3) the researcher synthesizing and interpreting the meaning of the field data.

      Data are gathered from fieldwork, that is, from spending sustained periods of time in the setting where participants normally spend their time. types of data commonly collected include records of formal and informal conversations, observations, documents, audio and video tapes, and interviews. For most part, though not exclusively, the data  collected are open-ended and non numerical.

      Data analysis of most qualitative approach is ongoing; as initial observations, conversations, and interviews are collected, the researcher analyzes and codes of the participants. As more data are collected, the researcher refines prior analysis and understandings, trying to focus on the key aspects to be studied and described. Thus, data collection, analysis, and interpretation occur through out the study rather than at the end of the study, as is common with quantitative research. We can think of qualitative research as collecting waves of data; each successive wave provides some information that further focuses the nature of the study until the researcher gradually zeros in on the important and recurring themes of the culture and its participants.

       Final product of the study is a rich description or narrative of the essential aspects of the topic as viewed by the participants. Quotations commonly are used to illustrate the voice and understanding of the participants. Words and pictures, not numbers and statistical analyses, are used to convey meaning. The main focus of the qualitative study is to use language to paint a rich picture of the setting and its participants. Following are two examples of qualitative approaches.

  1. The problems, success, and understandings of Jack, during his first year of teaching . The researcher would probably meet with Jack initially to obtain his formal agreement to participate, explain the nature of the study and  the time involved, and discuss the planned final research product. The researcher might start by obtaining Jack’s general educational history. The researcher  would want to view Jack’s general education history. The researcher would want to view Jack’s classroom (his context), and would spend a great deal of time discussing, observing, and taking notes about Jack, both in and out of class.
  2. Study of the Hispanic student culture in an urban community college . The study begins with a general research question  that requires a site that is a community college with Hispanic students. The researcher must gain entry to the chosen community college and establish rapport with the participants of the study. This might be a lengthy process, depending on the characteristics often researcher (e.g., non-Hispanic vs. Hispanic; Spanish speaking vs. non-Spanish speaking).



What are some qualitative research methods?

The three most common qualitative methods, explained in detail in their respective modules, are participant observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Each method is particularly suited for obtaining a specific type of data.

1.      Participant observation is appropriate for collecting data on naturally occurring behaviors in their usual contexts.

2.      In-depth interviews are optimal for collecting data on individuals’ personal histories, perspectives, and experiences, particularly when sensitive topics are being explored.

3.      Focus groups are effective in eliciting data on the cultural norms of a group and in generating broad overviews of issues of concern to the cultural groups or subgroups represented.


What forms do qualitative data take?

The types of data these three methods generate are field notes, audio (and sometimes video) recordings, and transcripts.





What are the basic differences between quantitative and qualitative research methods?

Quantitative and qualitative research methods differ primarily in:

1.      their analytical objectives

2.      the types of questions they pose

3.      the types of data collection instruments they use

4.      the forms of data they produce

5.      the degree of flexibility built into study design



Table 1. Comparison of quantitative and qualitative research approaches




General framework

o  Seek to confirm hypotheses about phenomena

o  Instruments use more rigid style of eliciting and categorizing responses to questions

o  Use highly structured methods such as questionnaires, surveys, and structured observation

o Seek to explore phenomena


o Instruments use more flexible, iterative style of eliciting and categorizing responses to questions

o Use semi-structured methods such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, and participant observation

Analytical objectives

o To quantify variation

o To predict causal relationships

o To describe characteristics of a population

o To describe variation

o describe and explain relationships

o To describe individual experiences

o To describe group norms

Question format

o Closed-ended

o Open-ended

Data format

o  Numerical (obtained by assigning numerical values to responses)

o Textual (obtained from audiotapes, videotapes, and field notes

Flexibility in study design

o  Study design is stable from beginning to end



 o  Participant responses do not influence or determine how and which questions researchers ask next

o  Study design is subject to statistical assumptions and conditions

o Some aspects of the study are flexible (for example, the addition, exclusion, or wording of particular interview questions)

o Participant responses affect how and which questions researchers ask next


o Study design is iterative, that is, data collection and research questions are adjusted according to what is learned


What is the most important difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?

The key difference between quantitative and qualitative methods is their flexibility. Generally, quantitative methods are fairly inflexible. With quantitative methods such as surveys and questionnaires, for example, researchers ask all participants identical questions in the same order. The response categories from which participants may choose are “closed-ended” or fixed. The advantage this inflexibility is that it allows for meaningful comparison of responses across participants and study sites. However, it requires a thorough understanding of the important questions to ask, the best way to ask them, and the range of possible responses.

       Qualitative methods are typically more flexible – that is, they allow greater spontaneity and adaptation of the interaction between the researcher and the study participant. For example, qualitative methods ask mostly “open-ended” questions that are not necessarily worded in exactly the same way with each participant. With open-ended questions, participants are free to respond in their own words, and these responses tend to be more complex than simply “yes” or “no.”

       In addition, with qualitative methods, the relationship between the researcher and the participant is often less formal than in quantitative research. Participants have the opportunity to respond more elaborately and in greater detail than is typically the case with quantitative methods. In turn, researchers have the opportunity to respond immediately to what participants say by tailoring subsequent questions to information the participant has provided.

        It is important to note, however, that there is a range of flexibility among methods used in both quantitative and qualitative research and that flexibility is not an indication of how scientifically rigorous a method is. Rather, the degree of flexibility reflects the kind of understanding of the problem that is being pursued using the method.


What are the advantages of qualitative methods for exploratory research?

One advantage of qualitative methods in exploratory research is that use of open-ended questions and probing gives participants the opportunity to respond in their own words, rather than forcing them to choose from fixed responses, as quantitative methods do. Open-ended questions have the ability to evoke responses that are:

• meaningful and culturally salient to the participant

• unanticipated by the researcher

• rich and explanatory in nature


       Another advantage of qualitative methods is that they allow the researcher the flexibility to probe initial participant responses – that is, to ask why or how. The researcher must listen carefully to what participants say, engage with them according to their individual personalities and styles, and use “probes” to encourage them to elaborate on their answers.


Is my quantitative experience applicable to qualitative research?

Although the objectives of quantitative and qualitative research are not mutually exclusive, their approaches to deciphering the world involve distinct research techniques and thus separate skill sets. This guide is intended to train researchers in the skill set required for qualitative research. Experience in quantitative methods is not required, but neither is it a disadvantage. Essential for our purposes, rather, is that all qualitative data collectors have a clear understanding of the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, in order to avoid confusing qualitative and quantitative techniques. Whatever a researcher’s experience in either approach, a general grasp of the premises and objectives motivating each helps develop and improve competence in the qualitative data collection techniques detailed in this guide.


Sampling in Qualitative Research

Even if it were possible, it is not necessary to collect data from everyone in a community in order to get valid findings. In qualitative research, only a sample (that is, a subset) of a population is selected for any given study. The study’s research objectives and the characteristics of the study population (such as size and diversity) determine which and how many people to select. In this section, we briefly describe three of the most common sampling methods used in qualitative research: purposive sampling, quota sampling, and snowball sampling. As data collectors, you will not be responsible for selecting the sampling method. The explanations below are meant to help you understand the reasons for using each method.


What is purposive sampling?

Purposive sampling, one of the most common sampling strategies, groups participants according to preselected criteria relevant to a particular research question. Sample sizes, which may or may not be fixed prior to data collection, depend on the resources and time available, as well as the study’s objectives. Purposive sample sizes are often determined on the basis of theoretical saturation (the point in data collection when new data no longer bring additional insights to the research questions). Purposive sampling is therefore most successful when data review and analysis are done in conjunction with data collection.


What is quota sampling?

Quota sampling, sometimes considered a type of purposive sampling, is also common. In quota sampling, we decide while designing the study how many people with which characteristics to include as participants. Characteristics might include age, place of residence, gender, class, profession, marital status, etc. The criteria we choose allow us to focus on people we think would be most likely to experience, know about, or have insights into the research topic. Then we go into the community and – using recruitment strategies appropriate to the location, culture, and study population – find people who fit these criteria, until we meet the prescribed quotas.


How do purposive and quota sampling differ?

Purposive and quota sampling are similar in that they both seek to identify participants based on selected criteria. However, quota sampling is more specific with respect to sizes and proportions of subsamples, with subgroups chosen to reflect corresponding proportions in the population. Assuming a 1:1 gender ratio in the population. Studies employ purposive rather than quota sampling when the number of participants is more of a target than a steadfast requirement – that is, an approximate rather than a strict quota.


What is snowball sampling?

A third type of sampling, snowballing – also known as chain referral sampling – is considered a type of purposive sampling. In this method, participants or informants with whom contact has already been made use their social networks to refer the researcher to other people who could potentially participate in or contribute to the study. Snowball sampling is often used to find and recruit “hidden populations,” that is, groups not easily accessible to researchers through other sampling strategies.


Wed, 11 May 2011 @15:29




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